Poetry: the Slow Boat to Publication

One of the most interesting aspects of the difference between on-line and on-page publication is the element of time. No matter how long one works on a piece of writing, the time to publish it online (and in general the whole pace of the internet at large) is much faster than in the print-publishing world. For example, assuming the first journal to which I send my poems publishes at least one poem right away, the process from mailing out to hearing back to (sometimes) approving galleys to seeing the work in print can take six months or more. As a result, it is nearly impossible in the realm of print publication to respond to something very timely via this medium. In fact, the whole climate (political or otherwise) that may have inspired a particular piece may have blown over altogether by the time it appears on a well-circulated page. Perhaps this is as it should be: that poetry (and nearly all other manner of print publication) remains a perennial art, ideally relevant not only six months but perhaps even six centuries from its inception if it is truly a great piece of work.

This does, however, bring up another interesting notion: the idea of delayed gratification.

Val and I have often discussed the implications of a fascinating psychological experiment.

AROUND 1970, psychologist Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

The result?

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.

Clearly, as a life skill, delayed gratification leads to more markers of material success. Or, perhaps it is equally possible to conclude that those who had not yet learned to exercise this level of self-control by the age of four were already destined to have more problems later in life. Either way, the idea of the children, “squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes — desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows” certainly strikes a chord in my own relationship to waiting for acceptance letters or rejection slips from publishers.

I think this may have a lot to do with why many people self-publish (as it were) through blogs. This is not to say that doing this is necessarily wrong or impulsive. Rather, if the purpose of writing is to connect with people, the internet provides that possibility (though not always necessarily that reality) at a startlingly faster pace than traditional channels. Personally, I have chosen to focus my energy on honing a few works until I am very happy with them, and then seek to grant first publication rights somewhere other than my own blog — and usually in an ink-and-paper form. That said, the decision necessarily means accepting the limitations of long publication cycles in which often even if one or more poems are accepted, others are invariably rejected. Therefore the time from writing to print can sometimes linger long.